A summer book shelf. Doesn’t that sound lovely? The truth is, well, messier. I’ve been trying to organize the shelves in our book room (or library, as we grandly call it). Yes, we have one. It used to be a playroom (and before that, a bedroom for the one child we had when we first built our house; by the time we moved in, another was due in two weeks….). The rooms we needed to accommodate the three children who eventually formed our family elbowed their way off that original bedroom/playroom and it seemed like a good idea to set up banks of shelves for the books that accumulated in the way books do. You think you have a few. You realize you have twice that many. Then three times that many. And so on. It’s like one of those math puzzles that hurt your brain. And if you’re like us, or at least like me in particular, you like to look things up in books rather than depending on the Internet exclusively. There’s something about taking one of the volumes of The Complete Gardener’s Collection to sit with as you drink your morning coffee, looking up one thing but then finding yourself reading something else with great interest.
So as I tried to find shelf room for some of the books in the piles that have grown against each wall in my bedroom, the surfaces in my study, some of those in the teetering columns against the bookcases themselves, I found myself thinking, Did I read that? Putting it aside to take upstairs to join the others on my bedside table. And there were others that I’ve bought and put on the lower stairs, waiting until I’d read my library books or the books I was using to research a particular thing in the novella I’m currently writing. I’ve also been gathering books about music for an essay I’ve been asked to write.
This morning, I realized the stairs were clear. The library shelves are as jammed full as they can possible be, several boxes are packed up for the thrift store or the book sale at the local library, and I’ve been thinking about what I’ve read in the last week. For some reason, the selection felt memorable. One title talked to another. A long gorgeous novel set in Ireland actually entered my dreams and I watched the two main characters diving off rocks into glittering water. Another made me laugh and cringe and worry about how the story would end. One or two were unsatisfying in ways that made me wonder why I seem to be outside the tide of current thinking.
Barbara Gowdy’s Little Sister, for instance: very well-plotted, well-written, but I found the whole thing kind of preposterous. I respect this author but can’t warm to her work. And I’m perfectly willing to take the blame for this. I never finish one of her books and think, Oh, I’ll need to read that again one day because I’ll want the story to unfold again, taking me along. I wasn’t taken along.
A book that was the antithesis of Little Sister was At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O’Neill. Not a new book – it was published in 2001 – but rich and timeless. O’Neill uses language like his shadow-brother, James Joyce; and it’s no coincidence that the novel takes place mostly around Sandycove, with its Martello tower haunted by that earlier James. There’s so much in this book. The life of a community with its rich and its poor, swimming, fatherhood and its gaps and tenderness, young men learning what their bodies are capable of, in the ocean as they swim towards the Muglins, and in the awkwardness of love. The complicated politics of Ireland in 1915-16 and its heroes and martyrs. The Church. I can easily imagine finding this novel in a stack waiting to find a place on the shelves and thinking, Oh, I’ll put it by my bed because I want to read it again.
The two books that spoke to one another were an unlikely pair at first. Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life by Julia Briggs is a wonderful guide to Woolf’s writing process. Briggs studies the material evidence of this and provides a fascinating exploration of the context of each of Woolf’s books. What she was reading, what she was thinking, her health, her friendships, what she hoped to do as she found her way into the deep work. An Aftermath section follows each chapter, detailing the critical responses to the books and– this is so interesting!– the sales information, the reprinting schedules, and how Woolf responded to the reviews and both the successes and failures of her books. Her schemata for To the Lighthouse is particularly enlightening. “She found herself with that ‘quick decisive stroke’ writing the words ‘To the Lighthouse’ at the top of a fresh page of her notebook, and following it with a diagram rather like a letter ‘H’– the ‘two blocks joined by a corridor’, which would make up the structure of the novel – the longer ‘Window’ and ‘Lighthouse’ sequences joined by ‘Time Passes’”. It made me want to pick up To the Lighthouse again, a novel I re-read every four or five years, always with a sense of rediscovery and pleasure. Of all Woolf’s novels, this one drew its author back into the idyllic days of her childhood summers and the beauty of that, the resonance, is palpable.
I loved finding To the Lighthouse at the heart of Kerry Clare’s delightful Mitzi Bytes. Sarah Lundy’s book club meets to eat good food (even a cake decorated with a lighthouse), drink some wine, and engage in a spirited discussion about the novel. Which becomes a discussion about much more, some of it coded and allusive. As Sarah’s life is coded and (in some ways) allusive. And elusive. How many of us don’t live multiple lives? Those of us who are parents know this. Those of us in relationships (of any kind, really). I read this book in two afternoons, on a long wicker lounge in our sunroom, not wanting to finish but hoping for a happy ending. At some points, that didn’t seem possible. The book is described as “a grown-up Harriet the Spy for the digital age”. I confess I never read Harriet the Spy. (Nancy Drew was the girl detective of my childhood though I suspect she wouldn’t work in the digital age. Her roadster? Her reluctance to kiss her boyfriend on the porch for fear the neighbours would see. Her sleek outfits and perfect diet, made possible by a kindly housekeeper?) But in some ways, To the Lighthouse is the shadowy H haunting these pages, bridging the before and the after, time passing, even as the computer crashes and the digital files are lost (but not the photos on her phone!):
The kids were changing all the time, so fast so often that from one morning to the next, they seemed like entirely different people. Sarah needed the pictures as proof of where the time went, but all the rest of it, everything else that mattered, were stories she kept filed away on her brain. It was an unreliable filing system, nothing ever turning up at the right moment and so much at the wrong time, but it worked. And it was possible that she didn’t need an archive, that she could go forward now.